Keigo (敬語), literally language of respect, is the whole system of politeness in Japanese. Unlike the Western languages in which the notion of politeness is realized essentially from polite vocabulary and expressions, the Japanese has a well-defined grammatical system to express politeness. The politeness mechanisms in Japanese highlight both positively and negatively not only the relationship between the speaker and the interlocutor but also between the speaker and the people involved in the communication. Even for Japanese themselves it is sometimes hard to master these different levels of speech but they have to know it because it is mandatory for work.
Politeness in Japanese falls into three categories: polite language (teineigo), language of respect (sonkeigo) and language of modesty (kenjogo)
Polite language: Teineigo (丁寧語)
Teineigo, the polite language, is the simplest form of the Keigo and is used by the speaker when he wants to put a certain distance between him and the interlocutor, for example with a hierarchical superior or a person he does not know not. However, it may happen that two friends use a familiar language between them in a private context and polished language in a professional context. In the same way, people in the same family may use polite language to exchange letters while they use familiar oral language. The polite language is the form foreigners learn first when learning Japanese because it can used in the majority of the situations and shows that the speaker is a polite person.
|To go||行く/ iku||行きます / ikimasu|
|To eat||食べる / taberu||食べます / tabemasu|
|To see||見る / miru||見ます / mimasu|
|To do||する / suru||します / shimasu|
|Name||名前 / namae||お名前 / onamae|
|Water||水 / mizu||お水 / omizu|
Language of respect: Sonkeigo (尊敬語)
Sonkeigo, the language of respect, is used to express the respect due by the speaker to the person he speaks of, for example a superior or a client of his company. This person may very well be the speaker to whom the speaker is speaking or a person who is not physically present. So for example if you are speaking with your boss and ask him/her "Did you see the movie yesterday?" you will use the verb "to see" (見る）but as the person is your superior it will become ご覧になる. The meaning is exactly the same (did you see the movie yesterday) but the difference is expressed by the level of politeness you are using with your interlocuteur.
|To go||行く/ iku||おいでになる / oideninaru|
|To eat||食べる / taberu||召し上がる / meshiagaru|
|To see||見る / miru||ご覧になる / goran'ninaru|
|To do||する / suru||なさる / nasaru|
|To refuse||断る / kotowaru||お断りになる / okotowarininaru|
|To know||知る / shiru||ご存知になる / gozonjininaru|
Language for modesty: Kenjogo (謙譲語)
Kenjogo, the language of modesty, is that of the three dimensions of Japanese politeness which is the most difficult to grasp, and which is generally the most misunderstood. The kenjogo is used to express a vertical relationship existing between two people of which the speaker speaks. Basically it is used when you are referring to yourself (while Sonkeigo is used while you speak about your interlocutor's actions). The most frequent case of using kenjogo is by far the one in which the speaker speaks for himself, placing himself at the bottom of the vertical relation that opposes him to his interlocutor, in order to be modest. For example if you are talking with your superior and he/she asks "what did you eat today?" your answer would be "I ate sushi". Here it is the verb "to eat" (食べる) which is used and as you want to show modesty you will use the verb ”いただく” which also means to eat. It is the same rule as for Sonkeigo, the meaning is exactly the same but the degree of modesty is different.
|To go||行く/ iku||伺う / ukagau|
|To eat||食べる / taberu||いただく / itadaku|
|To see||見る / miru||拝見する / haikensuru|
|To do||する / suru||いたす / itasu|
|To refuse||断る / kotowaru||お断りする / okowarisuru|
|To know||知る / shiru||存じ上げる / zonjiagerdu|
A thousand year old cultural heritage
Japanese society, marked by Confucianism, emphasizes the differentiation of status and the importance of hierarchy. The grammaticalisation of the politeness system in Japanese derives its origin from respect for the divinities and then from the complexity of the hierarchy of the Court. Today, the hierarchy established at the time of Japanese feudal society remains deeply rooted in modern society: chief / subordinate, teacher / pupil, elder / cadet. Politeness is extremely important in industrial relations and as such, young employees may be trained in its proper use.
You can find more informations about the official Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) on this article.